Specialist Howard Dixon on what gets firearms collectors excited, from revolvers owned by famous criminals to classic sporting guns and exquisitely engraved Colts
In 1902, Kaiser Wilhelm II was driving in Scotland when something spooked his horses and they started backing into a crowd of people. A British lieutenant general named Archibald Hunter sprang forward, risking his life to seize the reins and pull the horses under control. He might not be well known now, but in the late Victorian era Hunter was the epitome of the boy’s own hero and the Kaiser gave him a pistol in recognition of his bravery. That pistol more recently sold at Christie's; it went for £30,000.
Among certain gun collectors, the story made that pistol attractive. Provenance means a lot: it might be a gun owned by royalty or someone of standing in society, or it could be associated with a historical event. Christie's also once sold a standard Colt revolver that had belonged to Al Capone.
'Personally, I chase guns that played a part in history. One was a strange French carbine, which turned out to be from a Venezuelan gunboat that had run a US naval blockade at the beginning of the 20th century. The boat managed to get as far as Trinidad but was cornered somewhere in the Caribbean and forced to surrender. What I found really charming is that this gun still had a round of ammunition lodged inside that had misfired. After more than 100 years it hadn’t been extricated,' explains the specialist.
Individuals who collect every type of gun are rare. Some think there are three distinct categories of collector; as well as those who prize historical associations there are the engineers — who are drawn to the mechanisms and the development of gun technology — and the aesthetes who appreciate guns purely for their beauty.
In the technological evolution of firearms, there are several major staging posts. The earliest guns were simply a tube attached to a stick, with one little hole at the back where the powder was ignited and another at the front where the bullet came out. Unfortunately, rain dampened the powder and made it unusable, so the percussion cap represented a great leap forward. The cap was filled with mercury fulminate, which would detonate on impact and set off the powder charge.
Percussion pistols created in the 1850s are now highly collectable. During the 19th century, a 50-year period saw a progression from the flintlock to the machine gun; but the golden age of firearm innovation is generally accepted to have been the 1920s and 1930s, with the Edwardian era — from 1900 to the start of the First World War — as runner-up. People settled on most major firearm designs in the late Victorian period; if you place guns that go back 80 years next to those made a decade ago, they look virtually identical.
Ingenuity of design is one thing, decoration and presentation another. Modern materials like stainless steel and composites may be incredibly tough, but they don’t have the aesthetic quality of the finest aged walnut. 'In my opinion these modern materials have no charm. The Colt revolver, one of the most recognisable guns, is made on a production line. Yet I have come across Colts that have undergone extra finishing and special treatment for presentation purposes, some covered in gold koftgari work from India, others engraved with American scrollwork by masters such as Louis Daniel Nimschke,' Dixon goes on to say. 'At the highest levels of society, firearms were opulent items and status symbols. Older guns such as wheellocks and flintlocks might look cumbersome today but the level of decoration can be extraordinary, with carvings, gold and silver inlays, and beautiful walnut stocks.'
Some collectors, with an eye to hunting in Africa, will order what are called ‘big game rifles’, engraved with scrollwork and iconic images of the savannah, populated by Cape buffalo, lions and elephants. Just as art collectors accrue works from favourite artists, modern gun collectors pursue the work of certain engravers such as Philippe Grifnée, Philip Coggan and Ken Hunt, or the products of modern gunmakers famed for their scrollwork such as Purdey and Holland & Holland.
Anyone thinking of collecting should be aware that shotguns are remarkably delicate, given what they do. They are mechanical objects full of springs, levers and sears. If left inside a gun, traditional powder will absorb moisture from the air and rust faster than you will ever believe. Dixon explains how he shoots game once a year with a 170-year-old percussion shotgun, and gets down to the enjoyable ritual of cleaning his gun with boiling water, smelly chemicals, jags and wire brushes that very same evening.
'Nothing causes more of a stir in my department than the smell of dried oil and mothballs when an old gun case is opened. From a sales point of view, I prefer to find things in their original state. When buying an older antique collectable, I generally don’t recommend restoration. Cleaned, yes, and the stocks oiled; but I’ve seen terrible restorations, using harsh, modern techniques that have knocked the value of old guns into a cocked hat.'